Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Uni-, inter- or ante- disciplinary science

I hear quite often that we should try to work in an interdisciplinary environment when doing science. Heads of my university repeat this sentence in every meeting they go, as they try to explain us that there is the future of science.

I believe I usually am in a uni-disciplinary environment. For example I am only invited to seminars in my field,  where colleagues from other research groups in the same department are not welcome "because you are not a part of this team".  I also don't know what my officemates are working in, and I see them every day, but we are from "different" areas of expertise in the department, meaning different supervisors.

If I imagine an interdisciplinary research group, I might think of a room with experts in different fields (e.g. computer scientist, biologist, foresters, statisticians,...) working together to answer the same question. But I also see two uni-disciplinary issues in this room. First we are judging them by their past work as uni-disciplinary experts and not for what they can do in the future, and secondly, if these experts bring their past expertise as the only or dominant way of seeing things,  is that really interdisciplinary?

But then, I also see myself some how interdisciplinary. I am a forester trained in engineering and science, trying to become a PhD in forest sciences. But I don't work in the forest or wear a white lab coat. I spend most of my working time in front of a computer where I sometimes code, write, do statistical analysis and see the forest from ecological, productive or engineering side. Then, what is the correct way of calling myself?

Maybe Sean R Eddy [1] is right and the whole idea that we are promoting of "we must be interdisciplinary" is wrong. What we need is to forget about old disciplines, and what we really want is ante-disciplinary science.

[1] Eddy, S.R., 2005. “Antedisciplinary” Science. PLoS Computational Biology, 1(1), p.e6.

This post is part of the serie "Olalla´s trip to science" if you want to know more about this trip click here

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The flipped academic

20 years ago university teachers were responsible to provide knowledge that students have memorised, and repeat. Today knowledge is available to us by "a click" and there are high level courses of almost all the topics available to everyone for free (MOOC). Then the question rises: what universities members can offer, to students and society en general, that it is not already available?

Flipped academics might the answer. The flipped academic is a term used to call academics that do things differently. I have come across the term in some articles ([1], [2], [3]) were my favourite quote is:

"An academic's success should not be measured by the number of research papers they produce, but in how they communicate their work to a wider audience"

I have summarised the main points of what a flipped academic is, but I highly recommend you to read the referenced articles!:

A flipped academic:

1- Inform first and publish later.
2- Try to have a higher impact (both in community and students) rather than follow academic standard of success (publishing, teaching, services).
3-Treat funding as a mean to reach an end and not as an end itself.
4- is willing to be a pioneer in doing things differently.

Flipped academic might be the only hope to higher education, what if we did more to encourage them?

[1] The flipped academic. The innographer blog (
[2] The flipped academic:turning higher education on its head. The Guardian (
[3] 7 steps to thinking like a flipped academic. (

This post is part of the serie "Olalla´s trip to science" if you want to know more about this trip click here

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Forest History: Biological cultural legacy

INIA photo, Pine resin extraction in Soria, Spain

Forest has a history of changes in extension and nature.  Theses changes are related to human needs and social relationships between people and forest2. According with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), forest biodiversity results from evolutionary processes over thousands and even millions of years driven by ecological forces such a climate, fire, competition and disturbances 3. But it has been also proved that, in recent time, climate change have had much lower impact in forestry than human disturbances 4.

The concept “Biological cultural legacy” has not been defined scientifically, but we could assume that is a combination of two other concepts: Cultural legacy and Biological legacy. Cultural legacy is the behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic or age group that one generation leaves to the next.  Biological legacy is what after a destructive event remains and it is important in the recovery of the habitat biological community. For a better understanding, we should also define biodiversity, as the totality of genes, species, and ecosystems in a region... It can be divided in genetic, species and ecosystem biodiversity 1.

Analysed the biological legacy, only as a result of a human action, has multiple limitations. First, it is only one factor, and biological biodiversity is the result of the interaction of multiple factors. Secondly, human disturbances are not always considered destructive, from a biological point of view, disturbances in an intermediate level could increase the biodiversity level: e.g. grazing favour competitive poor species; but an exceed in the ideal “intermediate” level of disturbance implies a negative effect in floristic diversity 5.

Nowadays, we have forest ecosystems created as a result of  past human activities, with higher or less biodiversity than previous ecosystems. But all of them with a different biological legacy due to different cultural uses. Therefore, we can be sure that most of the current forest ecosystems, and in consequence, its forest biodiversity levels, are the result of multiple factors were human impact played or is playing and important role. Because of that I think considering biodiversity as a biological cultural legacy is correct.

Another aspect is if these forest ecosystems, created as a consequence of human impact, should be preserved or not. We must have as much information of the past and present forest structures to make the decision of what it is the best for the well being of society in each specific case. That could include: cultural preservation by protecting an area for it archeological remains, restoration to obtain a former cultural landscape or a natural forest structure with higher biodiversity, maintenance of managements systems to preserve a current structure that will disappear if the management stops. Etc. I believe that there is not a single correct answer.

I have seen in The Netherlands areas were trees and all the regeneration were cut to have a desert structure because it was the last representation of this ecosystem in the country; I also saw in Sweden abandonment of any kind of management in a forest land to leave the forest in a natural succession state and in Spain the cutting of all the conifers in a national park to come back to the “original” broadleaves structure. All of this management decisions were done to preserve or create different valuable structures or ecosystems.

If society consider that biological and cultural remains in our forest are important to preserve that will happen, but the reality is that nowadays not too many people considered biological cultural legacy as a priority reason for ecosystem preservation. Before, biodiversity preservation was the only perspective, but in recent years there is a shift to a sustainable management where, between others, cultural factors are included. This situation may help to considered and define Biological cultural legacy in future management systems.

Good readings on the topic from where I based this post:
1.     World Resources Institute, Union, W. C. & Programme, U. N. E. Global Biodiversity Strategy. (1992).
2.     UN Cultural and social values of forests and social development. 1–21 (United Nations Forum on Forests, 2010).
3.     CBD COP 2 Decision II/9, Forest and bioogical Diversity. Annex to decision II/9: Statement on biological diversity and forests from the convention on biological diversity to the intergovernmental panel on forests. at <>
4.     Seppälä, R., Buck, A. & Katila, P. Adaptation of forests and people to climate change-a global assessment report. IUFRO World Series 22, (2009).
5.     Berglund, B. E., Gaillard, M.-J., Björkman, L. & Persson, T. Long-term changes in floristic diversity in southern Sweden: palynological richness, vegetation dynamics and land-use. Veget Hist Archaeobot 17, 573–583 (2007).

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Nature conservation, forest disturbances and forest history

Liu Maoshan painting

It is common to use “virgin forest” as ecological reference for forest protection, conservation and restoration. But many times the structure considered as virgin it is not a mature forest that has not been disturbed by human activity. For example, it is often considered old-growth forest as virgin forest, and this forest it is not necessarily "virgin". Old-growth forest could develop following human disturbances. We can not just look to one aspect when  we are looking for references in nature conservation, there are many other possible aspects to take into consideration.

One of these other possible considerable aspects is for example the understanding of ecological processes and not only the last successional step, analysing previous disturbances, forest structure, forest use or define the baseline of when people started or stopped doing effect in an specific ecosystem.

Forest has a history of changes in extension and nature. Theses changes are related to human needs and social relationships between people and forest. 1. Nature has being seen as a machine, resource, something to be known and use. But also with a more romantic view: nature as a good, beautiful, something to be preserved. These two views contradict very often with nature conservation priorities, especially if those are only based in a single objective as virgin forest structure.

The term forest conservation can mean almost anything: resource conservation or manage resources sustainably, human welfare, preservationist, romantic view of nature. And none of these points of view are incompatibles or better than each other, but all of them have an anthropocentric approach. This human approach of conservation priorities, must be based in scientific knowledge but without forgetting that non-foresters and foresters alike will brought to think more deeply about the future of the forests, and its relation with the future of human society 2.

What we want to preserve for the future will determine the current management of the forest ecosystems but a specific management will never ensure a specific ecosystem structure in the future. But as more we know better chances we will have.

The question is: how we can have a deep understanding of the current forest structures that makes us able to decided what we want for the future? and how we can obtain these objectives?. The answer is: by including historical perspectives into the nature conservation work. Reconstruction of the past helps to have a clear understanding of the present situation 3 and can help to predict the future 4

As Michael Pollan (1992) wrote:

 “There appears to be no escape from history, not even in nature” .

Considering historical perspectives will help to define the temporal scale lines between the different forest uses and disturbances, previous forest structures, possible action for maintaining viable species populations, be able to find reference conditions with low human impact and also to include other values, as cultural and social, in forest conservation matters.

Good readings from where I based this text:
1.     UN. Cultural and social values of forests and social development. 1–21. United Nations Forum on Forests. (2010).
2.     Westoby, J. & Leslie, A. J. The purpose of forests: follies of development. Basil Blackwell: Oxford. (1987).
3.     Foster, D. R. et al. The Importance of Land-Use Legacies to Ecology and Conservation. Bioscience 53, 77–88. (2003).
4.     Foster, D. R., Orwig, D. A. & McLachlan, J. S. Ecologicaland conservationinsightsfrom. Tree 11 19, 419–424. (1996).
5.     Pollan, M. Second Nature: a gardener's education. Grove Press: New York. (1992).

Be the best or be remarkable

Once more I got inspired about science outside the office and without looking at my computer.

Yesterday I attended a short presentation on echolocation.  We talked about how impaired people develop other skills, like memory or sound perception, much more than other average people, because they need to. Probably if you play charades, she or he will remember and pay more attention to all the concepts that appear during the guessing process, and by putting together all the pieces will probably guess the concept faster than you that can see the acts. This does not mean that she or he is better at this game, it does only mean that this person can see  (how ironic) things from other perspective and can complement our perception to make us win the game.

Moving to science, I have the feeling that everyone is expecting from you to be the best in everything: be the one that knows the best your topic, the top in using tools and knowledge on statistics, the best writer,  the best teacher,the best defending your ideas, communicating to the public your research, communicating with other researchers, ... and, as it obvious, only few can be good (the best) in all of them.

Some people opt for pretending they are good in all those aspects they are not, and others tried of not doing the aspects in which they are not good. Maybe it would be better if we opt for recognised that we are not good at everything, and think that we can be complemented by others in what we don't do that well; and of course complement others in those things we are "the best".

Complement each other to be remarkable, also in science...

This post is part of the serie "Olalla´s trip to science" if you want to know more about this trip click here